Why the tech industry still can't get its way

perspective When it comes to pressing its case with the political elites, Silicon Valley still doesn't know how to throw around its weight, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, "Sugar" Ray Robinson punched far above his fighting weight. Can the same be said about the computer industry? Doubtful.

Each week, it seems, brings fresh evidence of the increasing intersection between the worlds of high technology and politics. Yet it's also clear that the tech business sector commands less influence with our political class than its size might suggest.

The reasons? I've heard several, but maybe the most persuasive is that Silicon Valley, for most of its history, wanted as little to do with Washington, D.C., as possible. And now it's got to play catch-up in a hurry.

Clearly, the computer industry's political instincts are a lot sharper than they were a decade ago.

The Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft was the first wakeup call. The lesson for Microsoft and its rivals was the value of having friends in high places--or at the very least, politicians that companies could count on in the clutch.

Then there was a California initiative called Proposition 211. Led by tort attorney Bill Lerach, that proposal would have made shareholder lawsuits easier to lob at companies when earnings fell short of expectations or stock prices took a tumble.

So it was that the tech industry raised more than $30 million to get its message through to voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the initiative by a 75 to 25 margin.

That defeat opened more eyes--and wallets. Just compare: in 1990, IT companies ranked 53rd among the 80 industries making political contributions. Ten years later, they ranked No. 8.

But while Silicon Valley may no longer keep the political world at arm's length, why doesn't a multibillion dollar industry have more political muscle than it does?

Clearly, with an agenda that ranges from patent reform to Net neutrality, immigration reform, drug patents and copyright enforcement in other countries, there's no shortage of political issues impacting the future of the tech business.

Yet there's still a disconnect between what the tech world wants and what the political world is ready to do for it.

At first blush, this should be a no-brainer. When major political decisions are undertaken, the technology industry should be able to demand a seat at the political table. Too often, the industry's on the outside looking in.

In part, that's due to the IT industry's traditional reluctance to push Uncle Sam too hard. Tech business doesn't have a history of being regulated, or even of working with the big federal agencies (except when it comes to the birth of the Internet).

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That hasn't done much for the interests of average computer users. To wit, the lousy record making broadband technology available to the citizenry of this country.

Why is it that the likes of Japan, Korea, Scandinavia and even France can provide more megabits to their citizens than the U.S. does? And those countries have better cell phone service, too, which is one reason governments there required better service for customers.

Earlier this week, at the Tech Policy Summit in San Jose, Calif., I listened to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz take a stab at the question. Schwartz mentioned with approval the effectiveness of national broadband policies in other countries. But he refused to take the seemingly logical next step and say this is something the U.S. should consider.

Why straddle the fence?

Because, said Schwartz, he was afraid of what might happen next.

That's either a cop-out or a contradiction--maybe both.

This country got universal electrical service because the government intervened. Nobody was going to get rich running wires across Nebraska. Nobody was going to get rich building an airport in Des Moines, Iowa. Nobody was going to get rich running a freeway the length of the Atlantic seaboard. The government had to get involved.

For Schwartz, it's not about getting 100 megabits into his house. He's more interested in getting America to better understand its competitive position and take action on related issues such as immigration and the state of education. He doesn't want government to force technology standards.

Do things need to reach that extreme? Schwartz is one of the more insightful CEOs I've met, but he's kidding himself if he thinks vague and anodyne prescriptions will be enough.

Jim Cicconi, formerly a senior official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, offers a different take. Cicconi, who nowadays acts as a government liason for AT&T, says the absence of a national broadband policy has put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

I think that's closer to the truth. So what should be done?

That's the tough one.

Maybe something like the national highway bill in the 1950s, which resulted in the building of a vast and modern transportation infrastructure? But this isn't only a question of bigger conduits reaching people faster. It's also about the underlying backbone and all that involves.

If technologists don't want to leave big decisions to the politicians, they'll need to get their hands dirty in the muck and grime of politics. But so far, I just don't see much fire in their belly for a fight.